Published: Aug 18, 2017

Orangutans - The Missing Link to Humanity?

Orangutans - The Missing Link to Humanity?

Humans may only share 97% of our genetic profile with orangutans, but these distant relatives are some of the most remarkable and resourceful animals on the planet. They perform feats that most would consider makes them human!

Orangutans - Are They Unique?

A female orangutan taking care of her orangutan youngJust a female Orangutan and her baby hanging about

Orangutans are only found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo and have evolved to live in the canopy of the rainforests. Their orange-reddish brown hair colour is a unique trait to have in the primate world and they have developed hand-like feet, flexible hips, long arms, and strong hands to be able to move about efficiently between the trees. However, there are disadvantages as they are not as quick when walking on the ground.

An orangutan's main diet is fruitsThe much larger-sized male Orangutan having a feast

Orangutans take full advantage of nature and its resources, getting food grown in treetops and drinking water from leaves filled with rain. The rainforest doesn’t provide a steady source of food to its inhabitants which mean a semi-solitary lifestyle for these fine creatures. However, when there is a surplus of basic needs, orangutans have been reported to socialise and congregate in small groups.

Behavioural Analysis - Can We Learn a Thing or Two?

Orangutans are known to use tools to help them complete tasksAn older male Orangutan using a stick to get into the termite's nest

Orangutans have unusually high cognitive thinking and they are born with and advanced learning skills. This enables the remarkable creatures to develop problem-solving traits and use raw materials uniquely and effectively. For example, when water is scarce, they chew leaves to make a sponge that can soak up water inside trees. Orangutans also have been witnessed fashioning makeshift umbrellas out of big leaves and using crude tools to help obtain food.

Orangutans are knowledgeable in the art of peeling fruits with hard shells and skinsOrangutans are known to peel and prepare their fruits for consumption

Their diet is primarily made up of over 300 kinds of wild fruit that the rainforest provides. The orangutan must have a superb mental map of the neighbouring lands in their mind and knowledge of the harvesting cycles of many types of fruits. The orangutan is even capable of processing and preparing the fruits for consumption as some of them have sharp thorns or hard shells.

An orangutan habitat located within the treetops, with leaves and branches to act as a soft beddingThe Orangutan's nest are well-built cluster of leaves that keeps them warm and dry

Orangutans are accustomed to building homes within the canopy of the rainforests. These homes are as advanced as human dwellings, having the primate equivalent of mattresses, pillows, blankets, roofs and even bunk beds. These homes can be considered apartments which hover up to 120 feet above the ground.

This video demonstrates the intelligence that these primates can display. Cohabiting with humans for a long term will cause the Orangutans to learn and adapt to the new way of life.

In fact, many of the orangutans in captivity today picked up traits that make them eerily human. Specimens like Wattana have learned to tie intricate knots and used them to decorate their enclosures and many others have started learning how to use iPads or create paintings.

Deforestation - A Necessary Crisis?

The effects of deforestation - Jungle wildlife, including orangutans, lose their homesLand clearing for agricultural and development activities sometimes threatens the home of these elusive creatures

Today, the palm oil industry is the most efficient oilseed crop in the world. The returns per acre of land are 10 times that of its nearest competition, the rapeseed. Malaysia and Indonesia is a major producer of palm oil, making up 84% of the world's total production.

However, this comes at a cost. Thousands of acres of tropical rainforests have been torn down and burned to pave the road for new unsustainable oil palm plantations. This unstoppable force of modernization is pushing native animals, including orangutans, out of their habitats leading to the extinction of many species native to Borneo and Sumatra.

The main causes of deforestation are agriculture and plantationsMalaysia and Indonesia are major exporters of palm oil products

Now, we need to ask ourselves, do we really need palm oil? The unfortunate answer is yes. Over 50% of products we use require palm oil. Everything from cookies to cooking oil requires some amount of palm oil. Therefore, it is safe to say this is one industry that is sadly not going to slow or stop anytime in the foreseeable future.

Extinction - Are we close to preventing it?

Orangutans in captivity are kept safe and healthy by their human caretakersUnder the right conditions, Orangutan can fare well in captivity

Population estimates done in 2000 put the Sumatran orangutan at 7,000 individuals left in the world and its relative, the Bornean orangutan, at 45,000 specimens left in the world. Unfortunately, since then, deforestation rates have accelerated which means that today, the actual numbers are reaching extreme lows.

Orangutans socialising over an abundance of fruitsOrangutan living together in a sanctuary built just for them

In an effort to save these fantastic creatures, conservation centres have been set up to rescue and rehabilitate orangutans who have had their homes destroyed. Additionally, researchers and conservationists like Birutė Galdikas and Willie Smits are helping to spread the message to other countries about the necessity of our closest primate relative.

A baby orangutan clinging to its mother's backThey take care of their young for about 7-8 years before they will mate again

Our best bet now is to raise awareness to the over-expanding and ever rapid modernisation of palm oil plantations and the victims left in its wake. Days like today, International Orangutan Day, are a hugely positive way to turn some much-needed heads towards the plight of the orangutan population. You can also directly assist the conservation centres by donating, adopting, purchasing, & volunteering.

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